How Animals Heal Us and Teach Us
Friendship and caring behaviors and children’s attachment to their pets.

Have you ever wondered whether children prefer certain types of animals as a pet, and what kind of attachment they have to their animals? A large new study by Roxanne Hawkins (University of Edinburgh) et al looks at this fascinating topic.

Attachment refers to our ability to form emotional bonds with our caregivers. A secure attachment is good for children’s development and mental health, and has a protective effect against various issues such as juvenile delinquency and anxiety disorders. Most research focuses on children’s attachment to their parents. But the fact so many children seem to form good relationships with pets makes it worthwhile investigating children’s attachment to their animals.

Just over 1200 children took part through 24 schools in Scotland. They were either in year 6 or year 8 (i.e. aged 8-9 or 10-11 years) and completed the questionnaire in class. 67% of the children had a pet, and 54% had a pet that was their own. While dogs (35%) and cats (22%) were the most common, other pets included small mammals, fish, reptiles and birds.

How do children feel about their pets?

Children reported very positive feelings towards their pets. Of the children who had pets at home, 83% said their pet made them happy, 80% said they love their pet, and 76% said their pet was their best friend. They also had very high scores for attachment to their pets. This shows it is worth investigating children’s attachment to pets further.

Children had stronger attachments to dogs and cats than to other types of pet, in particular to dogs. This could be due to a different kind of relationship with these animals and a greater responsiveness to the child’s emotions, and perhaps also to the fact dogs can often go places with the child. However the scale that is used to measure attachment to pets does include some things that do not apply to all pets (e.g. grooming does not apply to fish) so it may overestimate the difference.

Are caring behaviors linked to attachment?

Children were asked about the extent to which they care for their pet. Behaviours included in this category were stroking, cuddling, playing with and grooming the pet, taking it for a walk, spending time with it and allowing it to stay in the room.

Children’s friendship behaviors towards the pet were giving it food or water, talking to it, telling it secrets, and the child crying with the pet when they felt sad. (The allocation of these items to the categories of ‘caring’ and ‘friendship’ was based on statistical analysis, which is why feeding is in this category).

The researchers found that caring and friendship behaviors and compassion towards animals were all linked to the strength of attachment to the pet. In turn, those with stronger attachment to pets had more positive attitudes toward animals.

In general, girls had stronger attachments to their pets than boys, and also had higher levels of caring and friendship behaviors to the pet and of compassion.

The researchers say that caring for the pet could lead to a strong attachment to it, and this attachment could potentially have beneficial effects for the child.


Source:  Zazie Todd, Ph.D., Fellow Creatures; Posted July 7, 2017;

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